Sirte, the final battleground between rebels and fighters loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, is a broken city.
More than a month after the fighting ended in this coastal town – Gaddafi’s birthplace and the last to be liberated from his rule, or defeated, as the people here see it – many of its streets are no more than piles of rubble and burned buildings sprayed with bullet and rocket holes – up to 1m in diameter. Broken lampposts hang precariously over the roads. “Even the trees are wounded,” one aid worker noted.
Schools are closed. There is no mobile phone network. Very few shops are open. Most of the population of some 65,000 was displaced.
With the return of water and electricity in many parts of the city in recent days, people are slowly, but increasingly, returning.
But aid workers admit the dynamic here is not yet well understood, and the return of residents could be very destabilizing if not handled carefully.
In a town destroyed as much by rockets as by the highly politicized divisions between many of its residents and the rest of the country, their return raises many questions about the new Libya’s capacity and willingness to re-integrate residents who continue to support their fallen leader.
Estimates of the number of returnees to Sirte vary wildly. Abdeljalil Abdelsalam Al-Shawif, vice-chairman of Sirte’s military council, said recently that three-quarters of the population had returned to the city, but this claim is disputed by aid agencies, which put the figure closer to 25 percent.
Shuttered windows, closed storefronts, and empty neighbourhoods also seem to suggest lower rates of return. Khaled Ben-Ali, head of the Libyan Humanitarian Relief Agency, or LibAid, has said it will take months for people to return to Sirte.
Still, aid agencies are seeing decreasing numbers of displaced people.
“Every day, the security situation is improving,” said Al-Shawif. Water and electricity have returned to 90 percent of the city, he added, though it is not clear if it is yet potable.
This too, is disputed by aid agencies, especially in the areas most damaged by the fighting, including Zone 2 and Area 700, where, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), only 5 percent of homes have either of the basic services.
Faisel Mohamed Jelwal, chief of planning at the Libya Electrical Company, told IRIN it would be “a long time” before electricity returned to Zone 2, given the damage it sustained.
Aid workers warn that a delay in basic services, and any perception of discrimination, could lead to increased tensions.
The big clean-up
Marwa* opens the door to her home in Zone 2 with a facemask around her neck. She returned to her home a month ago, and has been cleaning it ever since.
Some of the fiercest resistance in the country came from her pro-Gaddafi neighbourhood, and she came back to find her home turned upside down.
She blamed rebels for the mess, saying they went into every home looking for weapons or pro-Gaddafi fighters.
She found bullet holes in the strangest places, rubble all over her bed, books thrown all over the floor; a mattress ripped apart seemingly by gunfire, and a gaping hole in her roof. She has gathered into a pile the mortar and rocket tailfins she collected.
A few doors down, her neighbour’s truck has a shattered windshield and the garage door is sprayed with bullet holes.
“They say things are better now,” she said. “Things are not better.”
The banks have been destroyed and she says there is no money for rebuilding.
“Coping mechanisms have undoubtedly been stretched as families have had property destroyed due to the fighting,” Karim Khalil, country director of ACTED, told IRIN.
But aid agencies are focused on more strictly humanitarian issues, such as providing food and healthcare to displaced and returning families, and say reconstruction of homes should be the government’s responsibility. They say some residents have complained that those who destroyed their homes should fix them. So far, the rebel-led local and military councils have presented no plan.
|One day, we’ll kick them out of here because this is Qaddafi territory, after all|
There has also been no presence of the National Transitional Council here, something that “would be a good way to heal and to build the trust”, Yahia Alibi, head of the ICRC office in the area, told IRIN.
Here in Zone 2, support remains firmly with Gaddafi. In these dusty streets, his fifth son, Mu’tassim, used to play with the local children. Green flags flew from every household. The new revolutionary flag is nowhere to be seen.
According to the military council’s Al-Shawif, a local relief committee has been established in each area of Sirte to help the needy, but the heads of committees are appointed by the anti-Gaddafi military council.
“How consistently they provide assistance is subject to political sensitivities, but also to capacity,” one aid worker said.
Marwa said she had received some food and a hygiene kit from the Libyan Red Crescent recently, but she believed that assistance was prioritized for residents known to have supported the revolutionaries during the war.
Aid delivery from local agencies has been tricky, given the bad blood between the residents of Sirte and the rebels from Misrata, the closest big city, who eventually stamped out Gaddafi fighters.
LibAid’s office in Misrata delivered food to returnees in Sirte at the end of October, but “because of the sensitivities between Sirte and Misrata”, one volunteer said, LibAid asked its Benghazi branch to take over deliveries to the area.
Volunteers with the Libyan Red Crescent in Misrata – many of whom were among the revolutionaries or lost family members at the hands of Gaddafi’s troops – faced insults from others in Misrata when they helped pick up dead bodies in Sirte for proper identification, Alibi said.
“It wasn’t easy for them to be as neutral as possible. [But] they did it”.
But the tensions in Sirte go beyond aid.
The city is controlled from the outside by brigades – units of rebels who now provide security in the absence of government services – from the neighbouring revolutionary cities of Benghazi and Misrata. Al-Shawif, like many of the members of the military council, is originally from Sirte but lived in Misrata and is a member of one of its brigades.
In essence, “the population is coming back to a power that is not representative of them”, one aid worker said. “This will undermine the return.”
“The people are not necessarily accepting the new rule, the new regime that easily,” Emmanuel Gignac, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Libya, told IRIN. “There is a sense of bitterness, probably, among the population. This will take a while.”
Even in her own home, Marwa lowers her voice when she speaks about her loyalties. She is afraid to speak up against the new rulers – a collection of rebel brigades that can be seen driving around in trucks mounted with machine guns.
“We’re all worried,” she said. “I don’t know what tomorrow will hold. For now, we’re just going to clean up our lives.”
A neighbour said there was little interaction between the residents and the rebels who now run the town.
“One day, we’ll kick them out of here,” she told IRIN, “because this is Gaddafi territory, after all.”
While most of the weapons in the area were cleared by rebels, Marwa said, some residents still had guns in their homes.
Members of brigades still come to take away people they believe to have fought alongside Gaddafi, Marwa added. Her uncle, a university professor from the UK, who she said was a vocal supporter of Gaddafi but not a fighter, was among them, she said.
In October, Human Rights Watch warned of the “apparent execution” of 53 Gaddafi supporters in Sirte after it found bodies – some with their hands tied behind their backs – decomposing in a hotel in the city.
Al-Shawif acknowledged that some of the brigades from Misrata had committed some violations, but said they had been ordered to leave the city now that Sirte had its own political and military structure.
“Everyone from the city is free to return, except for those who were leaders in the fighting,” he added.
Asked how they would be identified and whether a justice system was in place to try them, he answered: “We know who they are.”
After an inter-agency visit to Sirte and the surrounding areas in October, the UN said “there is a high risk that frustration and resentment among the long-term displaced may contribute to instability”.
UNHCR’s Gignac said the treatment of people who supported Gaddafi would be an important sign in the next weeks and months. “If you are not able to bring them back into the new social fabric of Libya, then [the revolution] failed.”
*Not her real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions